Millennials, Step Up

It was 5:32 a.m. I remember the time because I woke up in a state of anxiety. Restless, I grab my phone, touch the Facebook icon and scroll through my newsfeed.

My stomach drops. My heartbeat quickens. Tears flow, rapidly and uncontrollably.

A rapist.
A racist.
A misogynist.
A xenophobe.
An islamophobe.
An ableist.

Is now the 45th president of the United States of America.

I thought I’d be celebrating on Nov. 9, 2016 — popping champagne with my closest female friends as we celebrated the first female president.

Countless women fought, died and endured emotional, mental and physical abuse to secure women’s right to vote. The right to determine one’s destiny. The right to disrupt or take back power, by whatever degree, from a system designed to silence us. The right to lead.

For days, it was hard to wrap my mind around the reality of a Donald Trump presidency — a man who said women seeking abortions deserve some form of punishment, a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women, a man who vowed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and strip millions of vital lifesaving health insurance, a man who instituted an islamophobic travel ban and ended transgender student protections.

But I soon began to brainstorm how these feelings of despair and loss could be transformed into a commitment for social action.

Like most college students, my perennial to-do list is constantly growing. It can be difficult to develop ways and set aside time to make an impact in one’s community.

After a long week of classes, meetings and homework, most weekends I simply want to lay in bed, watch “Parks and Rec” for the umpteenth time while drinking tea and eating Insomnia Cookies. Calling my political representatives, writing letters to legislators or attending demonstrations isn’t typically on my immediate radar. What can I, an individual college student, do to effect tangible change?

Millennials have more influence than we realize, though. According to a breakdown of U.S. Census population estimates by the Pew Research Center, people born between 1981 and 1997 are the largest generation in the country. We have a responsibility to use our collective power as a force for good, since policies enacted under the Trump administration will have a direct and disproportionate impact on our current and future lives.

“From a systemic, social change perspective, almost every major social change effort has incorporated students in some way,” said Sarah Gaby, a teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate who teaches a sociology class about social movements and has conducted research on youth civic engagement. “Young people have the time and the resources to be involved in this kind of work, but they also have the thoughtfulness and innovation to see beyond the system, as it exists.

“So it’s this really critical time in life to have both the freedom one needs to do this kind of work, but also the capacity to make change.”

College students will likely experience a litany of hardships under Trump’s administration: fewer resources to vital liberal arts programs due to a proposed elimination of the National Endowment of Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as potentially fewer job prospects.

Cuts to the EPA, for example, place this inevitable future in stark reality. It’s unlikely that Scott Pruitt, the new EPA director who sued the EPA as Oklahoma’s attorney general and has expressed disbelief in human-made climate change, will hire graduates interested in protecting the environment. Future journalists will be forced to contend with an institution committed to withholding vital information by providing “alternative facts” to the public.

As Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos oversees the U.S. public education system. DeVos has gone on record stating it would be “premature” for her to fully commit to enforcing Title IX, a nationwide policy designed to fight gender inequality and sexual assault on school campuses. Considering one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses each year, DeVos’s unwillingness to completely support Title IX puts female and LGBTQ+ students at risk of violence and discrimination.

If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, those under 26 years old, the majority of millennial college students, will be stripped of health care if covered by their parents’ insurance. Some Republicans have already taken preliminary steps in repealing the historic law when Congress passed budget legislation in January that will affect the ACA.

Attacks on science, attacks on journalism, attacks on Muslim folks, attacks on young people, attacks on women, attacks on people of color. It’s only been a couple months of Trump’s America and the list already goes on and on and on.

Despite this sweeping legislation, there’s much we can do to make a positive difference. Real change emerges from grassroots organizing, activism and engagement.

If you’re a writer, join your college newspaper to hold Trump accountable and expose corruption that harms the public. If you dread talking on the phone, like most millennials, write a letter to your local representative detailing why they should resist an “alternative facts” administration. If you enjoy working directly with people, volunteer for a local nonprofit a couple times a month.

Gaby, the Ph.D candidate, said that reaching out to community organizations is an effective means of creating change.

“They tend to be really accessible and excited to have college students be part of these efforts, so that’s a really good way to start to make change because there’s a lot of people already doing really awesome, excellent work,” Gaby said.

Marches and rallies, too, are a good way to become engaged in resistance efforts. Raleigh’s annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street Moral March, for example, had a record 80,000 people attend on Feb. 11. The Women’s March on Washington, as well as sister marches across the U.S. and the world, garnered an estimated 4 million attendees.

“From the perspective of social movements, this is a really interesting time because whenever we see change, like an election, there’s a new opportunity for movements to emerge or groups to leverage a challenge,” Gaby said. “The system becomes a little more open to that participation. That’s why we’re seeing so much. When policies get passed, that’s an opportunity for movements to take and try to create change.”

Last month, I joined some friends to write letters to and call our state and national Congress members. It was cathartic and empowering to express my frustrations to folks who draft legislation directly impacting my life.

Reaching out to politicians does not go unnoticed. Contacting representatives has a proven impact. When DeVos underwent her confirmation process, education and civil rights activists encouraged the public to urge Republican legislators to vote no. After Alaska Republican Rep. Lisa Murkowski’s office received approximately 30,000 phone calls opposing DeVos, Murkowski became one of two Republican senators to vote ‘no.’ Murkowski’s decision is a testament to the power of civic engagement.

This toxic political climate can, understandably, become overwhelming. Sometimes, it’s easier to sit at home, watch Netflix, eat pizza and forget about the world spinning around us. Relax and unplug when you need to. Build up your energy. Then, develop a plan of action.

Older generations tend to characterize millennials as lazy, entitled, vain youths who would rather scroll through Instagram feeds and snap selfies than interact with and impact the real world. There’s no better time to prove them wrong.